Now that I've been soundly spanked for abusing government property (by having placed a tiny icon of the Chaplain Corps Crest above the disclaimer saying this blog was representative of my opinions only, thereby giving the impression to some that my blog was somehow authoritative and 'official' (?)), I'm being very careful to make sure that nothing I say or write could ever be construed as "authoritative and official."
I'm even having business cards printed up which will make that clear. After they arrive, I'll post photos of them here (unofficially, of course).
To that end, whenever I talk with Soldiers now, I always preface my remarks with, "Please do not construe my wearing of this uniform to mean that I'm speaking for the Army itself in any official capacity whatsoever. If you want 'official', you'll have to go elsewhere."
They've been looking at me even more strangely than usual, lately.
I wonder whether there's a correlation....
Just last night at dinner, I interposed myself into a table of four junior Enlisted personnel (the tables seat six, but not very comfortably; one of my guys had to move the automatic weapon he'd placed on the middle chair, so I could sit down), and I made certain before I'd even said grace before eating that they knew I was speaking unofficially.
I'm especially fond of having dinner with Soldiers like them, because they tend to be very "real" in what they're talking about.
Sometimes, however, I have no clue what it is they *are* talking about.
For example, I've never once played "WOW" ("World of Warcraft"). Until a short time ago, I didn't even know that people shell out $15 per month (!) to play that game online. Some gamers even have more than one WOW account, and are paying $15/month MORE for each of those 'avatars' (at least I think that's what they're called).
PlayStation. Game Boy. Xbox. Wii. (I'm having a 'senior moment' right now, because I can't call to mind all the other contraptions and games they're into.)
The world of those gizmos and the games played on them (mostly online, it seems) is just another example of how completely different this military culture is from what I was used to in the world of molecular neurobiology!
Anyway, as I've already mentioned, I sat down and thanked them for giving me a seat -- but unofficially. I made it clear to them that I speak only for myself and not for the Army in any official capacity, because I wouldn't want them to become "confused" by the fact that I'm wearing an official Army uniform.
One of them looked at another and rolled his eyes as if to indicate, "there he goes again, being a bit "off."
I get that a lot.
I then told them, "I'm really grateful that you guys let me barge in like this, me being an Officer and all. I'm always delighted to see you, and even more so tonight because I missed you while you were gone." (They'd been on a mission for a while.)
As it happened, though I'd not realized it when I decided to sit with them, the four are members of the same squad, and even the same team. Two had been born in the Eastern Hemisphere, and the other two had been born in the Western Hemisphere. None had grown up speaking the same language as any of the others.
Their great-grandparents may well have fought against each other (in various permutations and combinations), and yet here they were, eating together as friends.
I love that about the U.S. Army, and the reality of such a phenomenon gives me hope for this part of the world, where some people are still upset about (and fighting) a battle that ended in the Fourteenth Century of the Common Era. Sheesh!
It turns out that my Soldiers were all a bit down in the dumps yesterday evening. The young Soldier across the table from me smiled and said, in a very thick accent, "Sir, we're glad you came by tonight. We're always glad to see *you* -- *you* are welcome any time." The other three nodded in assent.
The Soldier to my right spoke up, "But as for others...." and his voice trailed off.
"Officers?" I asked.
"I was more thinking of NCOs," he semi-whispered, looking over his shoulder somewhat furtively. "But now that you mention it, yes, Officers too."
"Well, thanks, Men! That means a lot to me." I beamed at them. "I can't tell you guys how honored I am that you're allowing me to eat here with you. I really admire you gentlemen."
Actually, by the time I came over to sit down, each of them was almost finished with his food, so it was even more cheeky of me to have invited myself into their midst, and all the more telling that they stayed at table as long as they did.
We talked about what had been dampening their spirits (well, about *whom*, actually), and I was able to relate to them a similar experience I'd had with someone, which was also a big downer. Each nodded appreciatively.
We wound up talking for almost eighty minutes by the time we left the DFAC.
While we were at table, the Battalion Commander came into the chow hall, and sat at a table a few rows away from us. Every so often I noticed him looking in our direction, inquisitively.
He eventually came over to our table, leaned forward and said, "Good evening, Gentlemen," as he nodded to my companions. He then said, "And Chaplain."
Now, what's up with *that*? I ask you!
Why is it that almost always when I'm in a group of Soldiers, someone will greet the group, and then me, as if I were a completely different species, or something!? "If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you tickle me, do I not laugh? If you poison me, do I not die?"
(Ah, Shakespeare! I've been looking for an excuse to quote him -- unofficially, of course! -- for some time now. That worked out pretty well, wouldn't you agree?)
"Chaplain, you seem to have been holding their attention for quite a while, so I wanted to ask you what you're telling them," he continued.
"Sir, I've just been regaling them with stories."
"Regaling, eh? Well, could you give me a few pointers about regaling, then, so that I can get my Staff to pay attention to me like that?" he asked. "Well, Sir, if we're talking about the Staff, I wouldn't bet the ranch," I replied. He laughed and took his leave of us.
We continued our dinner-table conversation, which lasted much longer than I'd expected it would.
One of the Soldiers had been to Iraq twice, and had experienced some intense combat both times. "It's amazing to me," he said, "how relatively unstressful *those deployments* were, compared to this." (He actually used much more descriptive language, but it's probably best not to repeat it verbatim here, even though this is not an Official Army Site.)
I then encouraged them to shift their focus a bit, hoping they might be able to discover a somewhat different perspective on their experiences. With that new outlook, perhaps they could formulate more helpful responses to what they were going through. I also thanked them (unofficially, of course) for their courageous and honorable service, and told them how proud I was to serve with them.
One of them (two years in uniform) said to me, "No Officer or NCO has ever thanked me before, Sir. And they certainly have never told me they were proud to serve with me." He looked a bit crestfallen.
The Soldier to my left then said, "Hey Sir, is there any way *you* could become our Squad Leader?" His buddy across the table to my right said, "That would be *awesome*, Sir!"
I smiled and thanked them, but demurred.
The combat veteran, who'd gotten very quiet all of a sudden, then said, "You know, Sir, I was having a [really lousy] day until now, but it's gotten a [lot] better just since you showed up."
"Both times when I was in Iraq on Active Duty, if any Officer had come toward us, we'd have quickly turned and gone the other way. We'd even just get up and move, if one sat down with us."
"Even if the Officer was the Chaplain?" I asked.
"Oh yeah. He was just like the rest of them," he said.
"But you're different, Sir. Please come around any time you want!"
"Well, of course I'm different, Son! This is not a career for me; I was so old when I joined the Army, there's no way I can get in 20 good years before the mandatory retirement age. I'm sure they were young bucks."
I thanked them all again for dinner and for their military service, and reiterated that I just speak for myself, and do not express any official Army positions.
The Soldier smiled broadly and said, "That must be it, Sir!"
"What must be it?" I asked.
"The difference between you and those Active Duty Chaplains."
"You mean, that I'm an old fart?"
"No, Sir! *They* must have been official!"
Blessings and peace to one and all,
Fr. Tim, SJ